At her apartment in the Bronx, Iliana Rodriguez can't open a window, receive a visitor or turn on her stove without encountering a problem that her landlord should have fixed. Photo by: Adi Talwar
By: Jordan Moss
Entering her apartment at 2856 Webb Ave. in Kingsbridge, Iliana Rodriguez immediately points to problems.
In apartment 4D, there are no knobs for lighting three of the four burners on the stove. Rodriguez can turn the narrow metal stems, but it's difficult. When she raises the kitchen window across from the stove and lets go, it slams down immediately. Another window in her cold bedroom can't be fully closed, so a garbage bag is taped over the opening. The light fixtures in the bathroom and the living room don't work. The intercom is non-existent, except wires flowing from behind the fridge. So they can't even let friends or family into the building without walking down and up three flights of stairs.
"I've been here for two years and still no repairs," Rodriguez says.
This may be the first time this troubled building has been covered in the press, but it's not a hidden crisis. Then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio highlighted it on-line and the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) has been inspecting the building and pressuring the landlord.
Highlighting bad landlords
When Mayor Bill de Blasio was public advocate he created a website, the Worst Landlords Watch List, highlighting and tracking the code violations of buildings in bad shape. It ranks 2856 Webb Ave. as the seventh-worst Bronx property on its roster of 110 buildings.
"The city's worst landlords can no longer hide from responsibility while their buildings fall into dangerous disrepair," he said when he launched the list in 2010. "If you're looking for an apartment, check for your potential landlord on the Watch List first. And if you're living in a Watch List building, our call-in hotline and field organizers are here to help you navigate the process of reporting bad conditions and getting them resolved."
The list the mayor left behind still exists but it's frozen in time, listing the status of the worst buildings as of October 2013.
Letitia James, who succeeded de Blasio as public advocate, is planning to re-launch the site. But, according to her spokeswoman, there "is no specific date at this time." The mayor's press office did not return two emails seeking comment on what he would like to see happen with the site and what he felt was accomplished when he ran it.
De Blasio's list ranked the worst buildings by HPD data, tenant information, "and from other sources." According to the October update of the site, there were 37 more violations at 2856 Webb than there had been in mid-2011, leading a total of 331 in a building with only 25 units. Seventy-three of those violations were in the C class, the most serious.
Currently, the building has 350 violations, with 58 C's, according to HPD.
HPD keeps a focus on Webb Ave. landlord
The situation at 2856 Webb Ave. is significant because it was one of 200 buildings in the 2013 Alternative Enforcement Program (AEP). After six years in AEP it's been kept in the program for 2014, according to HPD.
In 2007, City Council legislation backed by then-Mayor Bloomberg created AEP as a tool for HPD to address buildings with chronic problems. According to an HPD report, to leave the AEP list within the first four months owners must address specific types of violations, such as correcting all heat and hot water violations as well as those related to mold. Among many other requirements, 80 percent of problems related to rats and other vermin must also be removed.
HPD brought the Webb building's owner, Dran Vataj, to Housing Court for serious litigation due to his failure, under AEP, to repair or replace the heating plant, roof and waste lines. "HPD's comprehensive case resulted in a consent order being signed on March 27 stipulating that the owner has 90 days to comply with the AEP order to correct," the city agency stated.
Overall, the agency says, the AEP program has been successful: 774 buildings have been "successfully discharged" and "approximately $38 million has been recovered from the owners in Emergency Repair and AEP charges, fees and liens (not including approved repayment plans)."
Organizing key, advocates say
But despite being a consistent AEP focus, the Webb Avenue building doesn't appear to be on the upswing. Advocates say conditions in an AEP building are more likely to turn around if that focus is paired with community organizing, something that doesn't currently exist at 2856 Webb.
"When you have the combined pressure of tenants actively working and following up, and HPD following up, you're much more likely to get landlords to make repairs," says Benjamin Dulchin, executive director of the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development, or ANHD.
Susanna Blankley, director of CASA, a Bronx housing organizing group based in Mount Eden, agrees. "I think tenant organizing really makes a difference in an AEP building, and coupled with organizing, AEP can be a great tool," she said in an e-mail.
Can a detailed database help?
Another nearby nonprofit, University Neighborhood Housing Program, collects critical data for apartment buildings citywide. Its detailed database, the Building Indicator Project, tracks troubled buildings, focusing on a variety of factors including housing violations identified by HPD and building-code violations issued by the Buildings Department. It also highlights taxes, water and sewer bills and emergency repair program charges owed to the city. BIP's current score for 2856 Webb is 5,061, more than six times a score of 800, which UNHP "classifies a property as likely to be physically and/or financially distressed."
"Our BIP database is an organizing tool to find systemic patterns that lie in the underwriting criteria of banks," said Gregory Lobo-Jost, UNHP's deputy director, in an email. "Are they lending to anyone who walks in the door? Are they financing problem buildings and problem owners? Follow the money and go after someone who has a reputation to protect. If we can transform the way banks do business, it puts problem landlords in a tougher situation."
Will the apartment ever get fixed?
In the meantime, back in Rodriguez's apartment, there's only one working outlet in the living room. The bathroom door doesn't stay shut. Persistent bubbling paint on the ceilings, and mold and mildew in the bathtub, worries Rodriguez because her 55-year-old mom, Nancy Santiago, has asthma. Her little Shih Tzu dog struggles with a similar health problem: coughing consistently during Bronx Bureau's two visits. Outside, he seems fine, Rodriguez says, but "once he gets into the building, he's a wreck."
According to Santiago, she has seen city workers visit her apartment about five times in the last year. "They wanted to see all the violations in the building," she says.
The family members say they can't reach Vataj, the landlord. Despite calling a number listed on the wall in the lobby, and getting another number from a man who said he was the super, Bronx Bureau was also unable to reach Vataj.
"You never get anywhere with anyone, so you're always stuck with nothing," Rodriguez says.